Essay — Iain Sharp

Iain Sharp: Letter from Auckland: Son of Landfall

At the time of writing, it’s in the midst of a closing-down sale, like much of Auckland, but for the last couple of years there has been a music shop on the corner of Vulcan Lane and Queen Street called Brashs. Sic. I don’t know why signwriters are so reluctant nowadays to include apostrophes, for surely these are very easy signs to draw. I wonder what Charles Brasch, the founder of Landfall, would have made of this music shop, with its deplorable punctuation and its cognomen so similar to his own. I like to imagine him, gaunt and aquiline, standing by the heavy metal racks with an expression of growing alarm as he contemplates the names of the bands ‑ Motorhead, Metallica, Def Leppard, Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror.

During the last 20 years more than 20 people have helped to edit Landfall. I’m one of them, and I guess that’s why I find myself wondering about Charles Brasch often. My attitude towards him has always been ambivalent ‑ an awkward mixture of ridicule and respect. I never met the gentleman, but somehow his fastidious patrician image has always summoned forth the lurking hooligan in me. I can’t resist mocking his solemn dream of establishing high culture in these small islands, even though I realise that Landfall depended on this dream for its very existence and New Zealand literature would have been a paltry, thread-bare thing in the 1940s, 50s and even 60s without it.

Brasch, by all accounts, was a very complex character. If he was sometimes rather precious, he was also courageous, humane and phenomenally hardworking. Most editors, for example, respond to unsolicited manuscripts by biffing them straight back at their perpetrators, with a curt rejection slip attached to the front page. Not Brasch. Until his retirement in 1967, everybody who submitted a poem or story to Landfall, however hopeless, received an individual reply from him. And they were prompt, detailed and generally encouraging replies too.

When I became the fiction editor of Landfall in 1988, the tradition of personal response still lingered on. I couldn’t cope with it. I didn’t know what to say to people. How do you tell well-meaning (but often very insistent) would-be authors that their heartfelt outpourings aren’t worth a damn without breaking their porous hearts? I came to dread the distressingly frequent piles of uncalled-for submissions. I didn’t have Brasch’s dream to sustain me as I waded through them. He believed, probably quite rightly, that New Zealand culture depended on his diligence and enterprise. I knew it could get by perfectly well without me.

While it’s true that the number of New Zealand authors (talented or not) has increased considerably since Brasch’s heyday, thereby making editorial tasks more burdensome, I think it should also be recognised how editorial ambitions have shrunk since Landfall’s glory days. Brasch believed that any literary magazine worth its salt should appear at least once every three months and, as well as poems and stories, it ought to contain reviews, interviews, essays, editorials, biographical pieces, illustrations and letters from the aggrieved. Although he had some trusted advisors, by and large he chose the lot himself. None of the current New Zealand literary magazines has a single godlike figure at the helm, nor embraces as wide a range of material as Landfall did under Brasch’s stewardship.

Instead they are run by editorial boards or committees and they concentrate on one or two genres at the expense of others. Sport comes closest to Brasch’s model, but it devotes much less space to criticism than Brasch did. New Zealand Poetry, rather bleakly and depressingly, contains only poems; there are no illustrations, reviews and interviews or letters to relieve the monotony. Charivari (if it still exists) is equally purist in publishing only short stories. New Zealand Books, being predominantly a reviews journal, might be described, a little uncharitably, as the rear end of Brasch’s Landfall. The Auckland magazine Printout has a little of everything, but even at its fattest it’s only half as thick as the thinnest Landfall.

Is there still a place for a Braschian journal? Frankly, I don’t think so. Landfall managed to survive Brasch’s retirement in 1967, but it died in 1972 with the departure of Brasch’s equally self-sacrificing and industrious successor, Robin Dudding. Subsequent editors (including myself) were just making Frankenstein-like efforts to reanimate a corpse. After 1972, there were occasional twitches and flickers and muscular spasms, but nothing which resembled full vitality. Dudding’s new venture, Islands, had life, but I doubt Dudding’s dream was ever quite the same as Brasch’s.

I confess that I groaned when I heard that the Auckland branch of Oxford University Press planned to continue Landfall. Why bother? Why not drive a spike through the poor old zombie’s head and let it rest in peace? Why not start something new? I’m not saying Brasch’s heroic endeavours should be forgotten, I’m just saying they belong to a bygone age. He transferred his allegiance to Islands before he died anyway, recognising the need for change. If Oxford University Press decides to bury Landfall and begins a new journal instead, I promise I’ll be among the first to subscribe.

 

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